'The product is ahead of the science': Doctor fears future 'epidemic' of long-term vaping effects

There are many similarities between the past popularity of cigarettes and the current vaping trend, says Dr. Chris Carlsten, director of UBC's Occupational Lung Disease Clinic and a professor of respiratory medicine.

Many similarities between past popularity of cigarettes and current e-cigarette trend, says Dr. Chris Carlsten

Vaping is advertised as a less harmful alternative to smoking — but little is known about the long-term effects of using e-cigarettes. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

While vaping is advertised as a less harmful alternative to smoking tobacco, a B.C. doctor has voiced his concern over the lack of data and research on its long-term effects.

Dr. Chris Carlsten, director of UBC's Occupational Lung Disease Clinic and professor of respiratory medicine, says there are many similarities between the past popularity of cigarettes and the current vaping trend.

"Although the effects are somewhat different, we're seeing a very scary parallel story. The product here is ahead of the science, and I think that's a problem," Carlsten told On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko.

Carlsten says he believes the negative effects of vaping will be revealed in the coming decades.

"I just hate to see the epidemic that may occur in the coming years if we don't think carefully about this," he said.

Harm-reduction message​ 'overblown'

In the process of vaping, e-cigarettes heat nicotine, flavourings and other chemicals to create a water vapour that is then inhaled. According to advertisements, vaping exposes users to fewer toxic chemicals than cigarettes. 

Carlsten says vaping is indeed less harmful than tobacco smoking. But he says doctors and professors who are attending conferences on the effects of vaping are hearing a lot of concern that the harm-reduction message is being "overblown."

"There's emerging evidence that the hope for harm reduction has not been realized to the extent that we would have liked," he said. 

'The content of the nicotine in the new [e-cigarette] products like Juul is 15 to 20 times the amount of nicotine that traditional cigarettes have,' says Dr. Chris Carlsten. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

He believes vaping is causing nicotine addiction among youth, who, he says, are more susceptible.

Those aged below 21 are approximately 10 times more likely to develop dependence on nicotine than those who start using it at an older age.

"The experimentation with this that is occurring is too risky," said Carlsten.

"The content of the nicotine in the new [e-cigarette] products like Juul is 15 to 20 times the amount of nicotine that traditional cigarettes have. It's a very effective delivery device," he added.

As research into long-term effects of vaping progresses, Carlsten says there needs to be increased education on the negative effects of nicotine.

Earlier this week, CBC reported how staff at North Vancouver's Seycove Secondary had locked all but two student bathrooms to try to deal with the growing problem of students leaving class to vape.

At Burnaby's Byrne Creek Community School, about a third of students are estimated to use e-cigarettes, according to teacher Marcus van Bylandt.

Juul responds

A representative from U.S.  vape company Juul Labs says it offers Juul pods — the cartridges in an e-cigarette — in different strengths of nicotine by weight.

"The five per cent formulation is designed to replicate the nicotine content smoking a combustible cigarette, while the three per cent formulation is designed to provide an option to allow current smokers to choose the nicotine alternative that best works for them to help them switch and stay switched," the company said in a statement to the CBC.

The representative also said the growing consensus from public health officials, including Health Canada, suggests vaping is less harmful than smoking for adult smokers. 

Listen to the full story here: 

While vaping has been advertised as a less harmful alternative to smoking, a B.C. doctor has voiced his concern over the lack of data and research on its long-term effects. 8:50

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story misattributed a quote to a Juul representative, stating nicotine products are designed to help people kick cigarettes. In fact, the company spokesperson did not make the statement, and the comment has been removed.
    Dec 05, 2018 5:50 PM PT

With files from CBC's On The Coast